Burrowed between LeBron James' decision to spurn the Miami Heat for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the ongoing Kevin Love saga is a superteam obituary.
The context of this NBA offseason will be marketed as a story dominated by loyalty, championship posturing and business savvy. But there is more to it than individual players looking out for themselves, and long-held fealty beating out immediate convenience.
There is, courtesy of James, a new superteam device in beta that's preparing to supplant the old, dying model.
The Current Problem
In leaving the Heat, James, even if inaudibly, admitted the accepted, previously proven superteam model is dead.
This isn't 2010. Harsher penalties are levied against teams who spend the way Miami did then, making it impossible for cores like that of the Heat's Big Three to remain together and play alongside a supporting cast comprising more than fillers and near-minimum placeholders.
Staying in Miami would have been the safer play. James only signed a two-year contract with Cleveland—another "business" decision—putting himself at the mercy of a window that would have offered more certainty alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh than Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins and Co.
Such thinking, though, rests on James accepting the Cavaliers for who they are, on him understanding that Irving and Wiggins is as good as it gets and there is no way of balancing depth with star power.
"Of course, I want to win next year, but I’m realistic," he told Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins of his return to Cleveland. "It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested."
Despite his initial sermon, James' tolerance isn't high. He has not given up hope of contending next season, of forming a new-age superteam, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:
LeBron James has reached to tell Kevin Love of his desire for them to play together with the Cavaliers, front office sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 17, 2014
Cost, for the moment, is irrelevant. Wiggins may or may not need to be traded for Love, but it's the spirit of James' apparent desires that matter more.
If the Cavaliers acquire Love, James will have left Wade and Bosh, two superstars—one of them fading—for two other superstars. It's not a lateral move; it's a lateral concept—an identical slant that will have been created using a different, soon-to-be popular approach.
Past superteam designs are actually extinct. Unless the players bamboozle owners in the next collective bargaining agreement, there won't be another offseason like 2010, when the Heat signed three established superstars to near-max contracts.
Even teams like the Houston Rockets and New York Knicks—active seekers of superstars—are finding their pipe dreams must be assembled gradually, summer to summer, rather than instantly.
Alternate thinking has since been put in motion, most of it founded upon the idea that players, that superstars, must accept pay cuts to keep powerhouses alive.
Money, however, is more important than ever. Players are going to get theirs. Bosh took the five-year deal Miami was offering instead of joining the Rockets; Carmelo Anthony left the Chicago Bulls in lurch for a nine-figure deal with the Knicks.
The idea that players such as Anthony and Bosh—even if it meant sticking with James—would drastically curb their earning potential was, and will remain, inane.
Grantland's Zach Lowe expands on this as he discusses the brave, expensive, me-first world the current CBA has created:
The salary rules in the NBA are so complicated that players are losing the public relations battle because it’s just simpler to point to Duncan and say, “Be like him.”
But sacrifice is a two-way street, and every situation is a beehive of complex variables. No choice is easy, and the hero/villain lines are never as clear as we’d like. If it’s so virtuous for a great player to give up salary, why shouldn’t an owner also be called upon to lose money if it will help his team win?
Owners—many of them anyway—arent 't inclined to foot exorbitant luxury-tax or, worse, repeater-tax bills. Players won't accept huge pay cuts. That's the obstacle superteams, both new and old, face.
Somehow, someway, superteams need to get cheaper without demanding players and owners make radical concessions.
And here's where the innovation of James' decision comes into play.
Disregard the length of James' deal for now. He still signed, as a tenured superstar, for the maximum allowed. Instead of trying to find one or two equals—Anthony, Bosh, Wade, etc.—to team up with, James joins Irving, the proud owner of a brand new, five-year, max contract extension.
But his extension doesn't kick in until 2015-16. He's coming off his rookie contract, which is still in effect for 2014-15, when he will earn roughly $7.1 million. And once his new deal kicks in, he won't be earning LeBron James money. He'll be earning Paul George money (under $16-17 million to start).
Similar benefits apply to Cleveland's pursuit of Love, who is still working on his second contract and is, therefore, cheaper.
Will Cavs close the deal 4 @kevinlove ? If they do the Cleveland fans would be treated to the BEST TRIO IN THE NBA!— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) July 20, 2014
This isn't the Cavaliers chasing three players at corresponding points of their career. Their (theoretical) troika is a preemptive, varying strike.
Love, Irving and James are at different stages of their tenures. Pairing James with two younger, more financially friendly stars makes said dynamic easier to sustain.
Irving, truthfully, is the key. That's how modern-day superteams can start: with one incumbent star who hasn't yet hit unrestricted free agency or even finished his rookie contract.
Going after a trio of All-Stars seeking their third and fourth contracts makes for expensive ventures that call for pay cuts and across-the-board sacrifices.
Catching a majority of the core early has become paramount.
A New Blueprint
It's all about the dollars and cents.
Cleveland is not without a supporting cast. Even if it trades for Love, there are players like Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao other Goliaths do not house. There's even a chance—though likely a slim one—Love's arrival wouldn't cost Wiggins.
Those complimentary players make life easier. Establishing chemistry takes time when dealing not only with superstar egos, but a lack of support.
Take what USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt wrote in response to the Brooklyn Nets' slow start this past season:
The Nets — and not that they didn't know this coming in — are learning what other star-laden teams have discovered: Playing as a cohesive team is not easy. At the least it doesn't happen overnight.
Look no further than the Miami Heat in 2010-11. They had just assembled a roster that featured Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. They started 9-8, and experts said it wouldn't work.
The Nets were deeper last year than the Heat were in 2010. They were a hybrid superteam that was created through trades and free agency. But they targeted aging veterans on expensive pacts that granted little flexibility. And look what happened.
They weren't sustainable. Paul Pierce left for the Washington Wizards because first, they're a better team and, more importantly, second, the Nets didn't even make him an offer:
Nets had the chance to re-sign Pierce and passed, according to league sources. Would have cost them upwards of $20 million in luxury taxes.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) July 13, 2014
Timing is now everything in these situations. Superteams cannot be built on the fly at the expense of depth and financial plasticity. Depth is too important, as the San Antonio Spurs showed in the NBA Finals. The financial implications are too overbearing, as the Heat came to see—Mike Miller's amnesty—and the Nets now know.
There is only grandfathering juggernauts in, forging them earlier, creating them before price and product quality no longer align.
Certain teams can go the Oklahoma City Thunder and Spurs route, attempting to build star-laden factions via the draft, hoping that, one day, career-long indwellers channel their inner Tim Duncan, putting prolonged success ahead of lucrative paydays.
Or there's what James and the Cavaliers are trying to do: follow Miami's blueprint earlier than the Heat did, before cost outweighs function and purpose, and sustainable superpowers become inaccessible.
*Salary information via ShamSports.